Wednesday, May 10, 2017

"The Jolly Green Giants" and basketball glory

(Third in a series)
      You almost always knew that Bossier High School's athletic teams would be competitive. The Bearkats were rarely a pushover.
      One of the legacies of the 100-year-old school is success in athletics, and so many outstanding athletes that we don't have space to list all that many.
      There have been state championship teams in football (two) and boys track and field (three in a row) and some heartbreaking near-misses in baseball, and success in wrestling and perhaps other sports, but boys basketball is the centerpiece of Bossier High athletics.
In 2016, another basketball state championship
for the Bossier Bearkats.
      Why? Three state championships and five runner-up finishes. And it is a current story.
      Chris White coached the Bearkats to a Class AA runner-up spot in 2005. Then in seven of the past eight years under coach Jeremiah Williams, the Bearkats have played in the state tournament (until expansion, it was known as the Top 28). And that includes four state-championship games. 
      Count 'em up: 2009 -- Class 4A runner-up; 2011 -- Class 4A champions; 2012 -- Class 3A runner-up; 2016 -- Class 4A champions.
      Williams' 2011 team had a 33-2 record and was led by guard Jalan West, who has gone on to a terrific college career -- despite injuries -- at Northwestern State. (He's still there, just awarded an unprecedented injury-waiver seventh year by the NCAA.)
      Two years ago, the Bearkats were piddling along with a 14-9 record. Then they won 13 of their last 14 games -- the last three by a total of six points -- and they claimed the big trophy ... again.
      In 10 seasons, Williams' teams have won eight district championships and have a record of 296-67, and West is one of a dozen Williams-coached Bossier players to play college basketball.
Frank Lampkin: coach, principal
      The late Frank Lampkin and John "Hound" McConathy would be proud. They paved the way.
      Anyone familiar with Bossier High over the past 70 years knows those names.
      Before he was the quiet, dignified and steady school principal for 24 years -- more than double anyone else's tenure -- Lampkin was the Bearkats' basketball coach. His 1949 team was the school's first title contender, the Class 1A runner-up to Many.
      McConathy, a college basketball star and brief early years NBA player, was his successor in 1956 and had a powerful program. A few years before he came the respected superintendent of Bossier Parish schools, his Bearkats struck basketball gold.
      In 1959-60, Bossier won the Class AAA state championship with a 41-4 record -- the last year before the state tournament began in Shreveport.
      That well-rounded Bearkats team was led by a 6-foot-6 stringbean, Cecil Upshaw. I will tell you now that of all the  Bossier High athletes, he was my personal favorite. Read on.
      The often-told story is that McConathy -- nicknamed "The Hound" -- insisted that the state championship game with always powerful DeLaSalle (New Orleans) be played in the old Bossier High gymnasium, a "bandbox" that, crammed, could hold maybe 600 people.
      When it was suggested to McConathy that the game could be moved to, say, Hirsch Youth Center, to accommodate a much bigger crowd, he said he had waited a long time for his team to play for a state title, and he wasn't giving up homecourt advantage.
       Bossier won 39-35. We haven't forgotten.
John McConathy, coach, and George
Nattin Jr., player (later coach)
 McConathy's best player before Upshaw was a flashy guard, George Nattin Jr., son of the longtime Bossier City mayor. Nattin Jr. would go on to star for LSU's basketball teams in the late 1950s/early 1960s and, just after graduation, succeeded McConathy as the Bossier coach.
      Nattin's first Bearkats team, 1962-63, was part of "The Big Three" with Byrd and Fair Park, and Bossier's only losses came to those two rivals. It was the year of "The Big Three," and each of them could have won the state title. But Bossier finished third in the district and missed the playoffs.
      With Bill Collinsworth as coach, a big Bossier team -- earning a nickname that stuck for years on all Bearkats teams, "The Jolly Green Giants" -- won a district title in 1964-65. Then Collinsworth's 1967-68 team, second in its district, made a surprising late-season run
all the way to the Class AAA state championship game, only to lose to Al "Apple" Sanders (future LSU star) and Baton Rouge High.
      Bossier continued to have strong teams for the next 3 1/2 decades through a succession of good coaches, but after Williams took over, the 'Kats finally returned to the state tournament in 2005. And now it's a mini-dynasty.

      Here is why Upshaw is my favorite: Of all the Bossier High athletes, he became -- unless someone suggests differently -- the best-known and most successful at the pro level.
      OK, I'm partial because I got to know him a little bit -- wrote about him a few times -- and watched him play basketball and baseball, although a few years after he graduated from Bossier High.
       Although his roots were in Spearsville, La., where he showed early promise as an athlete (especially in baseball), he moved to Bossier near his high school years ... and the Bearkats, and eventually Centenary College, benefitted greatly.

       He was a heckuva good shooter, a star scorer on a couple of strong Centenary teams that often played major competition in the early 1960s.
      But he was an even better baseball pitcher (and a darned good hitter in college and semipro ball). Baseball was his route to the pros.
       He became a relief pitcher in the minor leagues -- with a wicked submarine delivery, tall and thin (his college nickname was "Stick") and especially difficult for right-handed batters -- and he was a star for the Atlanta Braves, his best year for a division champion in 1969 and again in 1971 (after he almost cut off his right ring finger in a freak accident early in the 1970 season).
        His baseball career and life ended too soon, but he always had his fans, starting in Shreveport-Bossier.
    Last season, Bossier was host for its 77th annual Bossier Invitational Basketball Tournament, which dates the event to at least 1940.  
     That is a lot of basketball. At Bossier, it really is a tradition.
     Next: Football memories


  1. From Pesky Hill: I know I’m prejudiced, but I love reading anything about the Bearkats’ teams and their players. Jeremiah Williams is a great coach. He doesn’t recruit. He just takes what shows up out of his zone. It is hard to believe how successful he is every year. And, he is truly a very solid person. He is a role model who teaches discipline…and especially defense. If you don’t play defense, you don’t play for him.
    I also agree with you about Cecil Upshaw. He was my all-time favorite athlete. I also got to know him after he started playing major league baseball. I wrote a story about Cecil in the "Bear Facts." I interviewed him in his Shreveport living room home near Captain Shreve High School.
    Great blog. Thank you very much for writing about Bossier and the Jolly Green Giants.

  2. From Frank Bright: As I recall, Cecil's senior year the basketball starters were Upshaw 6-foot-6, Max Nix 6-5, Tommy Rachel 6-4, Dennis Kile 6-3, Donnie Lewis 6-2, and top sub Sandy Sanders was at least 6 feet. We [Fair Park] thought that they were huge.

  3. From Stan Tiner: Great memories there. Bossier, Byrd, and Fair Park games in the late 1950s and early '60s were classics. Terrific players and coaches.

  4. From Ike Futch: Can you imagine what kind of baseball and basketball teams we would have had at Spearsville if Cecil's family had not moved to Bossier? We went 18-1 and won the Class B state championship in baseball and Cecil beat us in the Dubach tournament. We were 38-4 and got beat in semifinals in basketball. We might have gone undefeated in both sports if we had had Cecil on those teams.

  5. From Jerie Shirley Black: As you know, as a little girl I was around all these coaches from time to time. I thought John McConathy looked like a movie star. When Jon [Black] and I moved to Shreveport in 1980, he went to work for New York Life, and John McConathy joined us soon after. I shared that with Corene [Mrs. McConathy] during a NYLIC gathering; she got a kick out of that. They were very special people.

  6. From Jack Thigpen: Cecil was an outstanding basketball and baseball player. I understand one night when Cecil was playing for Bossier and they came to Ruston to play the Ruston High Bearcats, Cecil did not play the first half and Denmon Garner -- RHS coach -- asked John McConathy at halftime why Cecil had not played. Coach McConathy said that Cecil forgot his shoes. Coach Garner asked what size Cecil wore. Coach Garner found a pair of shoes that fit Cecil and Cecil played the second half wearing the shoes Coach Garner found for him. The only problem was Ruston was leading at the half, but with Cecil wearing a pair of Ruston High shoes, Bossier came back to win the game.

  7. From Buzz Wojecki: How about that spring night in 1966 when Terry Bradshaw came to the Bossier High track and threw the javelin a herculean distance (244-11 1/2), setting the national prep record. ... The story of Bossier sports includes the stories of our great competitors across the state and the story is encyclopedic in volume and waiting for the right pen. ... And, yes, when the 'Kats played for the state basketball championship at Bossier High and won their first one, I was there -- a little kid brought to the game by his father. I remember it like yesterday.

  8. From Jim Robinson: Love your Bossier series. Was Toms the basketball coach of Bossier in the late 1960s/early 1970s while I was at Woodlawn? That name sticks in my mind for some reason. Bossier Gym was a tough place to walk into, and we [Woodlawn] had trouble winning the Bossier Invitational while Robert [Parish] was at Woodlawn.

    1. Larry Toms, whose teams at Jonesboro-Hodge had won two consecutive Class 2A state championships (1964, '65), took over as Bossier coach in 1970-71, and his Bearkats usually were tough to beat, especially in E.L. Reding Gymnasium. Robert Parish and Woodlawn won a very close game there during the 1971-72 season.

  9. From Totaltoma: You forgot to mention coach Larry Toms' teams of the early 1970s. Won district one year, runner-up the next. Lost to Richwood (Monroe) at Richwood, which went to win state, and the next year lost at DeRidder, which then took it all. That Bossier team as freshmen went 22-2. Ricky Rayl & Co. was a great team.

    1. I agree. Covered those teams for The Times -- Flea King and Tony Forrest were among the key players. Larry Toms was another in a long line of outstanding coaches at Bossier. Those two Bearkats teams were very good, but had bad luck in the playoff draw with extremely tough road games.